Irish vote a chance for Europe to move on

October 1, 2009

It’s time for the European Union to move on after nearly two decades of institutional navel-gazing.

The Irish seem likely to agree when they vote in Friday’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty. They are expected to vote yes. Britain’s Conservatives, who have threatened to keep up the fight against ratification should they win next year’s general election, should take note.

The Lisbon treaty is an unloved document and the manner of its adoption has been tortuous and contentious, even though parliamentary ratification is no less legitimate or democratic than holding a referendum.

The main changes would be to create a long-term president of the European Council instead of the six-monthly rotating chair, and a stronger foreign policy chief with a substantial budget and a European diplomatic service. The decision-making system would take more account of member states’ population size.

A “No” vote would plunge the 27-nation bloc back into division and introspection and make it a less influential player in the new world order emerging from the financial crisis.

But things may not be that clear-cut. Even if the Irish back the EU reforms at the second time of asking, there is still the possibility of prolonged guerrilla warfare. Procrastination by Czech President Vaclav Klaus may delay their entry into force a while longer. His supporters have appealed to the Czech constitutional court, which has already validated the treaty, and he will await its ruling.

It is conceivable that Klaus may stall until the British election, hoping that a Conservative government will seek to kill off the treaty, already ratified by the UK parliament, by putting it to a referendum and campaigning for a “No” vote. Opinion polls show most Britons dislike the treaty, but it is low on their list of concerns compared to the economy, schools, hospitals, public transport and pensions.

While the Conservatives could argue that this would simply fulfil a political promise, it would cause widespread dismay in Europe. And it would trigger more institutional wrangling at the very moment when the EU was seeking to make its voice heard in the economic councils of the post-crisis world.

If Conservative leader David Cameron is the pragmatist that his supporters say, he should not want to start his premiership by provoking a crisis with his EU partners. Britain has enough economic and financial problems without marginalising itself in Europe.

Ireland’s own financial woes have changed the terms of the debate since voters rejected the treaty last year out of fears that their country would lose influence in Brussels and might forfeit its military neutrality, strict abortion laws and right to set its own tax policy.

The former “Celtic Tiger” is now effectively on life-support from the European Central Bank and has been spared an Iceland-style meltdown by its membership of the EU and the euro zone, with an implicit German bail-out guarantee. Anyone in any doubt about that should watch Irish bond spreads and the stock market on Monday if the referendum result is negative.

But it is not just Ireland’s financial outlook that will darken if voters reject the treaty. The EU’s hopes of carrying weight in a fast shifting global power balance with the United States and China will be diminished if it fails again to make its creaking institutions more effective.

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